Economics of Persuasion in Peace and War
Today the world has almost 3 billion people on Facebook, 2.5 billion
on YouTube, and 1.5 billion on Instagram. The vast majority of
social media use takes place on mobile devices.
The rise of mobile broadband and advances in social media are reshaping how
war is fought
Russian aggression against Ukraine is the first major interstate war of the
smartphone era. New information and communication technologies are reshaping
how the war is fought. The Russian government is fighting on three fronts: a
kinetic war in Ukraine; a war within Russia, where antiwar protesters want
to force Russian President Vladimir Putin to withdraw from Ukraine; and a
war for global public opinion.
On all three, information technology matters. Within Ukraine, smartphones
record both war crimes and movements of Russian troops. Within Russia,
remaining social networks help organize protests and coordinate sending
lawyers to support the detained. In the global information battleground,
videos from both sides try to persuade third countries to accelerate or
decelerate the delivery of weapons and to introduce (or help circumvent)
unprecedented economic sanctions.
The idea that information and the lack of it matter in war is not new. In
his posthumously published treatise
the famous military theorist Carl von Clausewitz emphasized the importance
of the ďfog of war.Ē War disrupts normal media reporting, greatly increasing
uncertainty; thus, information that reducesóor augmentsóthis uncertainty may
substantially affect a warís outcome.
While the importance of information for war has always been understood, the
recent dramatic rise of mobile broadband internet and advances in social
media have radically transformed how information is collected and
disseminated. According to the International Telecommunications Union, in
2007 the world had only 0.04 active mobile broadband subscriptions per
capita. In 2021, there were 0.83, 20 times more. This growth took place in
both developed and developing economies. Developing economy rates were 0.006
in 2007 and 0.73 in 2021. In Russia, the figure today is more than 1,
meaning just about everyone is connected. Mobile broadband crowded out fixed
broadband as the main source of access to high-speed internet. Fixed
broadband subscriptions in the world only grew from 0.05 per capita in 2007
to 0.17 in 2021.
The third and fourth generations of mobile broadband technology, known as 3G
and 4G, made a qualitative leap over earlier generations by enabling users
to take photos, record videos, and immediately distribute them globally. The
spread of 3G and 4G consequently became a key driver in the growth of social
networks. Today the world has almost 3 billion people on Facebook, 2.5
billion on YouTube, and 1.5 billion on Instagram. The vast majority of
social media use takes place on mobile devices.
As Martin Gurri argues in his prophetic book The Revolt of the Public and
the Crisis of Authority in the New Millennium, this technological shift
has major political implications. The self-immolation of Tunisian street
vendor Mohamed Bouazizi in December 2010 triggered the Arab Spring as it was
recorded on a smartphone and went viral. A similar self-immolation by
another street vendor, Abdesslem Trimech, took place a few months earlier
but was not recorded and went largely unnoticed. The Arab Spring
demonstrated the dramatic change in the way media reporting works. Most
coverage of the Arab Spring by Qatar-based broadcaster Al Jazeera came from
cell phone videos disseminated on social media, not from professional camera
The same is true of todayís war in Ukraine, the first major conflict in this
era of radical transparency. Civilians and soldiers alike hold smartphones,
take photos, record videos, and post them on social media. And yet this has
not cleared the fog of war. The problem is not a lack of information; the
challenge is an excess of informationómuch of it not fact-checked. Broadband
internet and social media lend themselves well to dissemination of exciting
and outrageous content, not necessarily true information. In the past
decade, we have already seen the skillful use of social media by populist
politicians. In our paper ď3G Internet and Confidence in Government,Ē Nikita
Melnikov, Ekaterina Zhuravskaya, and I show that the spread of mobile
broadband explains about half of the recent rise of populism in Europe.
But social media is not a favorite only of populists. It is also the tool of
choice for a new generation of nondemoncratic leadersóDaniel Treisman and I
call them ďspin dictators.Ē In our new book of the same name, we argue that
most of todayís nondemocracies no longer rely on fear and mass repression.
Instead, they manipulate information. They deceive the public into believing
that they are competent leaders. They pretend to be democratically elected.
While admitting imperfections of their electoral procedures, they claim that
these imperfections are no different from those in the West.
For such so-called spin dictators, social media provide a great platform.
Not surprisingly, Putin, one of the main inspirations for our book, has
invested heavily in internet-based informational warfare over the past 10
years. Troll factories, social media bots, anonymous Telegram channels, and
Facebook advertising campaigns have all played a key role in his political
strategy at home and abroad. Now he is applying these tools to the war with
Ukraine. This time around, his job is much harder: as we see firsthand
evidence of war crimes in Ukraine, he is definitely losing the information
war in the West. But this only raises the stakes for him at home. He must
convince at least a substantial part of the Russian public that he is waging
a just war. This is why just a week after starting the war he closed down
all remaining independent media, blocked most Western social media, and
introduced military censorship. Public statements contradicting the official
version of events are now punishable by up to 15 years in prison.
Has this worked? Yes and no. The polls registered rapid growth in Putinís
approval ratings, from 60 percent to 80 percent. On the other hand, given
the dramatic increase in repression, the polls are no longer reliable.
First, there was a huge drop in response rates. Second, list experimentsóa
special technique used by political scientists to infer average level of
support without asking people direct questionsósuggest that many Russians
went back to the Soviet practice of ďpreference falsification.Ē Yet even in
list experiments, 53 percent of Russians support the war, according to
Philipp Chapkovski and Max Schaub in their paper ďDo Russians Tell the Truth
when They Say They Support the War in Ukraine? Evidence from a List
Experiment.Ē Russian government propaganda works.
In addition to supporting the Ukrainian army with weapons and imposing
further sanctions on Russia, the West should accordingly commit more
resources to the information battle for Russiansí minds. This is not
impossible. Russia is not China, and there is no Great Firewall. Some social
mediaómost important, YouTube and Telegramóare not blocked. VPNs are not
outlawed. Relative to Cold War times, when the West used Russian-language
radio programming by Radio Free Europe, Radio Liberty, the BBC, and Deutsche
Welle, today there are many more opportunities to reach the Russian
audience, providing facts about the war and fact-checking of Russian
propaganda. Winning the information war within Russia will help win it on
other frontsóand prevent future invasions by Putinís regime.